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“I am not alone, loneliness is always with me”

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 17 April 2013

the woman was watching a movie on her smartphone while cracking sunflower seeds, and the man has been staring at his screen for a while.

On a train, the Chinese woman watching a movie on her smartphone while cracking sunflower seeds. The man next to her has also been staring at his mobile phone screen for a while.

Now I am in China. Thanks to the taxi detour which sent me to a wrong train station I had to take a slow train rather than a high speed one to go to the fieldsite – which turned out to be coincidentally rewarding since the majority of the passengers on this slow train was Chinese rural migrant workers who exactly fit my research target population.

Let me first contextualize the trip. It was not in a peak period, the capacity of a train carriage is 112 persons, however there were 143 persons in the no.5 carriage when I left. Train staff closed all the windows to prevent people from buying cheaper food from local vendors at each station through an open window which would undercut the food sales on train. As a result the whole carriage smelt like a smoking area since people were allowed to smoke in the vestibules between two carriage’s theoretically with open windows. Although it is difficult to categorize neatly what people were doing; I still managed to do a bit of counting when walking around in my carriage.

Nobody was engaged with any paper-based media, neither with books or reading a newspaper.

About 5-7 people were walking around as well, looking for a seat or just without any clear purpose.

Three groups of people (around 15 people) were playing cards; at least 30 people were staring at the screens of their mobile phones (four – fifths of them used smartphones, and among the smartphones which I managed to see clearly, Lenovo seemed to dominate the market, very few Apple phones were found).

3 – 5 people were chatting on the phone for a long time (more than 15 mins) with ordinary volume, or a even louder volume to make themselves be heard.

15–18 people were cracking 瓜子 guazi (sunflower seeds which were sold with shell and people need to crack the shell with their teeth)

Roughly one quarter of the passengers were engaged in conversation with their neighbors, or just looking around; and another quarter managed to sleep in various positions. When I closed my eyes, all kinds of noises – from the train, the cracking sound of sunflower seeds, people talking, and the shouts of vendors, were mingled together, and became even more overwhelming.

Among all these passengers I was particularly interested a group of  ‘打工仔’ da gong zai (male young migrant workers) who crowed at the entrance to the carriage. There were seven of them, coming from Suzhou to Guangzhou. None of them got a seat ticket, so they needed to stand for almost 10 hours during the trip. When I met them, three of them were playing cards, sitting on the floor in the area between two carriages, and others were smoking. In my last 1-hour trip I gave up my seat in the carriage and moved to the smoking area, standing there, talking with them, passively smoking away. All of them came from the same village in Guangzhou (south China province), and worked in a low-market photography workshop in Suzhou. The oldest one was 24 years old, and the youngest one was only 15 years old. None of them had a high school certificate. All of them had smartphones but they couldn’t use them because they didn’t have enough money left in their phone and couldn’t top them up being outside the city where they bought the SIM card.  In China the majority of mobile services is “pay as you go”, which means no contract is needed and is very convenient for people who only stay in a place for a relatively short period.

It was shocking to find that all of them, even the 15 year old, consumed a lot of cigarettes – on average a package (12 cigarettes) per day, which accounted for one third of their daily expenses (700 RMB per month). When talking about the reason for smoking, one told me “see, we have nothing to do, smoking kills time!” Another added, “What we are smoking are not cigarettes,” and the rest continued “but  寂寞 jimo (loneliness)!” and everybody laughed. The joke about loneliness actually is an online meme – the most frequently quoted line is  我不寂寞,因为寂寞陪者我 wo bu ji mo, ji mo pei zhe wo. “I am not alone, loneliness is always with me”. A joke was definitely not evident enough to reflect how they felt bored or lonely in life, which however expressed itself through the way of the whole carriage of migrant workers doing all kinds of repeated and time-killing activities, such as cracking sunflower seeds, card playing and smoking. After 1 hour of chatting, all of them were more than happy to exchange QQ (the dominant social media in China) numbers with me, and urged me to accept their friend request. It also seemed that QQ in a way functions similar to smoking as one put it this way “it’s so easy to spend a whole night on QQ, gaming or just chatting!”

I am reluctant to jump to any conclusion of the relationship between boredom / loneliness and smoking or QQ usage among rural migrant workers, however after my first encounter with my migrant worker friends I think it would be very interesting to look at this issue in my research afterwards.

Elderly, ageing and social networking: a brief literature review

By Tom McDonald, on 24 January 2013

Photo by Ethan Prater (Creative Commons)

One of the foci of our research project will be to assess the impact of social networking on elderly people and housebound individuals. Back in October of last year I spent a few days in the library undertaking a literature review on the theme to get an idea of what had been written so far.

Most of the studies came from psychology. These investigations were almost all based in Europe or North America, and used questionnaires to try and understand the impact of internet use on people who were alone in their homes. Some studies suggested that computers and internet could decrease sense of isolation for homebound elderly and disabled persons, whilst others pointed to a relationship between social anxiety and a preference for online computer interaction. So the findings from these kind of studies, were perhaps not entirely conclusive.

For anthropology, ageing represents a universal human phenomenon.  But at the same time, I agree with Lawrence Cohen that we should not just reify old age as an object of study. Even our titling of this research focus as ‘impact of social networking on elderly people and housebound individuals‘ is somewhat unfortunate, as it lumps together two groups of people that would not always identify with each other!

Instead, I think that keeping an open mind on issues of ageing should be central to our ethnographic fieldwork. Ageing is a unique process which affects people in different cultures in vastly different ways, to the extent that some people in their seventies or eighties might not even identify as being ‘old’.

And social networking will undoubtedly be bringing it’s own effects to the way ageing is understood and occurs in society. In an article by Laviolette and Hanson they record the effects of assistive technology devices that formed a telecare package were placed into the homes of older people with chronic heart failure living in north England. These devices were supposed to ‘monitor’ the older people’s activities (i.e. heart rate, moving around room, etc.) to enable them to remain at home instead of having to be admitted to a care home. Here too, being housebound was not necessarily a bad thing, and the participants of the study typically deeply feared the possibility that they might lose their home. However, whilst some participants appreciated that the monitors were reporting their health back to the hospital, for others they feared that the sensors would be used to gather evidence that would allow social care services to argue that the patients were unable to look after themselves in their own home.

Our project will, of course, differ from all of the above. The data we gather will be through living with old people for 15 months in small towns of seven different countries. I will be fascinated to see how the findings of such in-depth, culturally diverse studies can contribute to our understanding of the way information technologies are shaping the lives of people in their older years.